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What Does Indigestion Have to Do With Heartburn?

You ate something that didn’t agree with you, and now you’re dealing with a bloated feeling, and even some burning in your chest.

Your friend asks you what’s up as you reach for yet another antacid. “Oh, I’m just dealing with some heartburn,” you say. But wait...is that the case? Or are you actually dealing with indigestion?

If you’re like most people, you’ve used these terms interchangeably. However, while they’re definitely similar, indigestion and heartburn don’t mean exactly the same thing.

What’s the difference between indigestion and heartburn?

Indigestion is the condition and heartburn is just one of many symptoms of indigestion. While indigestion could describe general stomach discomfort, heartburn is the burning feeling you have after eating. In addition to your heartburn, you could also experience bloating and cramps. All three of those would still be filed under “indigestion.”

Understanding the difference will help you address your symptoms more effectively (and impress your friends with your medical knowledge). But, as always, if you’re confused or have questions, talk to your doctor or another medical professional to get their advice.

So, what is indigestion exactly?

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, indigestion is a “general term that describes a group of gastrointestinal symptoms that occur together.”

You might also hear indigestion called by its formal scientific name, dyspepsia. If you aren’t feeling fancy enough to use that scientific name, you can essentially think of indigestion as an umbrella term for a variety of symptoms related to having an upset stomach.

What are indigestion symptoms?

So, what types of symptoms can you expect? Well, indigestion can be tricky, because it’s such a general term. That means it can present itself in numerous different ways. You might experience only one of the related symptoms—or several of them together.

The Mayo Clinic explains that potential symptoms include...

  • a burning sensation in your upper abdomen (also known as heartburn)
  • bloating
  • feeling uncomfortably full during or after a meal
  • general discomfort or abdominal pain

Nausea, burping, and vomiting can also be symptoms of indigestion, but they’re less common than the others.

Bloating

Let’s dive into the symptom that gets a lot of people talking: bloating. Each person who deals with indigestion might experience slightly different symptoms. However, as the American College of Gastroenterology explains, a feeling of uncomfortable fullness—or feeling bloated and swollen—is definitely one of the most common indicators.

If you feel full even before you’ve finished your meal, feel full long after a meal is over, or feel tight in your upper abdomen (due to a buildup of gas), you could be dealing with indigestion.

What causes indigestion?

Because indigestion is a broad term for a wide array of upper abdominal discomfort, there are plenty of different potential causes. Even something as simple as overeating or eating too quickly could make you groan and want to undo the button on your jeans.

But the most common causes of indigestion can be broken down into the following categories: existing medical conditions and the foods you eat.

Conditions

While many of us are quick to point the finger at a certain menu item for our indigestion, a variety of underlying small intestine or other digestive tract diseases such as problems with the gallbladder, liver or pancreas can also be at the root of the problem.

Conditions can include:

  • acid reflux (or GERD)
  • celiac disease
  • gallstones
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • lactose intolerance

Yep, acid reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) make this list. They’ve been known to cause indigestion and abdominal discomfort. And that’s because the lower esophageal sphincter’s inability to control that wayward stomach acid can wreak a lot of havoc on your entire digestive tract.

Foods

You knew that diet was going to be part of the picture. Much like with any other digestive or stomach issue, what you eat plays a big role in what happens inside your body.

Fatty foods, greasy foods, and even dairy products are common dietary culprits. They’re all notoriously harder to digest, so the stomach empties more slowly—which only adds to the discomfort and general feeling of fullness that you’re saddled with.

As if that wasn’t enough, these types of foods also contribute to acid reflux, which many people can get confused with indigestion.

How do you treat indigestion?

Sure, it’s good to understand where indigestion comes from. But what you really want to know is how you can treat it.

Be aware that how you treat your indigestion is going to depend on its root cause, so that’s important to pinpoint first. However, below are a couple of the more common treatment options that are available.

Medications

If you feel tempted to reach for the antacids when you’re struggling for indigestion, you’re on the right track. When it comes to over-the-counter medications, antacids are an effective option to relieve some of your discomfort because they’ll help to neutralize the acid in your stomach.

If you’re also experiencing heartburn along with indigestion, you could look at taking a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), which will reduce and block the production of stomach acid. Some PPIs are available over-the-counter, while others will need to be prescribed by a medical professional.

Lifestyle changes

Rather not dig into your medicine cabinet right away? A few different lifestyle changes can help you avoid indigestion in the first place.

Avoiding known trigger foods—like fatty, greasy, or spicy ones—can help you stave off that discomfort. Additionally, eating smaller meals at a slower pace will hopefully prevent that overly full and bloated feeling (as well as the inevitable belching that accompanies it).

Particularly if you’re struggling with a burning sensation as one of your main symptoms of indigestion, weight loss could also be a benefit. Studies show that a higher body mass index (BMI) can lead to an uptick in heartburn and other similar symptoms, because there’s increased pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter. That makes it tough for it to keep your stomach acid where it belongs.

We hope this helps clear a few things up. We also hope now when your friend casually mentions they have “indigestion” in passing, you’re able to let them know if that’s actually the right word to use.


The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.